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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Easter 05/28/2017

We celebrated the Ascension of Jesus last Thursday.  It’s a service that always has light attendance, most churches don’t have a service at all and because of that the lectionary provides the option of using the texts for Ascension today.   Those aren’t the lessons we’re using this morning but there are pretty strong echoes of the Ascension in the readings for this seventh and last Sunday of the Easter season which does provide the opportunity for further reflection on this principal, but frequently overlooked, festival of the church.

Whether you view the Ascension of Jesus as a literal event in which he drifted up into the clouds or if you see it as the church’s imaginative way of making the claim that Jesus shares in the power and honor and majesty of God the Father, it doesn’t really matter.  Either way, the image is compelling in helping us to understand Jesus as high and lifted up, sharing in God’s power and rule.  If all we had was the statement from the creed, “He ascended into heaven,” without a story or image to go along with it, it would be much harder to process.  The story and image are helpful.

This kind of godly ascent to power still resonates as it did in the first century when the gospels were written and actually way before that.  The Psalm appointed for today, Psalm 68, is also a psalm about God ascending to power.  Obviously, it’s part of the Old Testament which would make it old enough, 2500 to 3000 years old, but it might be even older than that as it’s thought to be a poetic text taken from Canaanite religion and adapted by the people of Israel for worship of their God, the Lord.

In many ancient religions, God was frequently imagined as the God of the storm, causing thunder and rain, riding on the clouds.  In this psalm, that kind of imagery of fearful power and awe winds up applied to YHWH, the Lord, starting with,  “As smoke is driven away, so you should drive them away; as the wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish in the presence of God.”  That’s a God you might not want to get too close to. 

Then there is reference to the cloud rider: “Sing to God, sing praises to God’s name; exalt the one who rides the clouds; I AM is that name, rejoice before God.”  It’s a long psalm, we only had selected verses today, but the end of it returns to the same imagery, “Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth; sing praises to the Lord.  You ride in the heavens, O God, in the ancient heavens; you send forth your voice, your mighty voice.  Ascribe power to the God, whose majesty is over Israel; whose strength is in the skies.”

The accent again is clearly on God’s power and that’s OK; I dare say that for all of us that is part of our image of God.  It’s one of the “O” words applied to God, omnipotent, all powerful.  But…in the midst of verses that announce God’s power, including military power to subdue enemies, this psalm also makes known another side of God, a God who is a father to orphans, a defender of widows, a God who gives the solitary a home and brings forth prisoners into freedom.  This God who reigns in power and rides on the clouds is more than that.  It’s a God in relationship, one who especially cares for the neediest in society.

When we think about this psalm in connection with the Ascension of Jesus, it witnesses to the fact that as Jesus ascends to power he is not just a majestic, cloud rider, transcendent, remote and otherworldly, but that he is also fully aware of the reality and injustice that can be found in this world.  He is about the work of bringing about a different order which is the order of God’s kingdom. 

It’s quite clear that the writers of the New Testament searched for and used Old Testament imagery as they proclaimed their faith in Jesus and as they told stories about him.  With that, it is safe to say that accounts of his ascension drew from imagery like that which we have in Psalm 68, imagery that includes Jesus as the rider on the clouds, but also Jesus who is passionately involved in this world.  That is the Jesus we envision ascending to the right hand of God’s power.

What we then find being talked about in these last days of the Easter season is the disciples being empowered for work in this world.  The coming of the Holy Spirit has been hinted at, the arrival of the Advocate who will lead Jesus’ disciples in the way of truth.  In the ascension story the disciples are essentially told to stop gazing into heaven because there’s work to be done right here, Spirit led work that has to do with making God’s kingdom known.

John however, doesn’t have the same Kingdom of God talk that the other gospels do when talking about Jesus’ vision for life in this world.  Instead, he talks more about eternal life.  You perhaps say, wait a minute; isn’t eternal life about what happens when we die?  Well, that’s part of it.  But in John, there is a here and now aspect of eternal life.  In John, Jesus says that those who believe in him have eternal life; he doesn’t put it in the future tense and say that those who believe will receive eternal life, he says have; it’s in the present.  It has more to do with a quality of life, rather than having to do with the duration of life.  In other words, eternal life is how we live, not how long we live.   We sometimes talk about the need to spend quality time with those with whom we are in relationship and quality time might get us closer to understanding what is meant by eternal life. 

Eternal life is quality time that has meaning and purpose.  It’s living life mindful of the teachings of Jesus, mindful of his ethic of love and forgiveness and compassion and welcome, mindful of grace.  It’s being conscious of the self giving sacrifice of Jesus.  Eternal life is being really present to those around us—being present and engaged rather than being distracted.

Such presence is harder than it sounds.  In some ways it’s a gift but I think we’ve all experienced those people who, when you’re with them, when you talk to them, they make you feel like, at that moment, you are the only one who matters.   That’s being really present and it is a dimension of eternal life.

Eternal life has to do with our relationships with others but it also has to do with our relationship with God.  In today’s Gospel reading it says, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”  Knowing the only true God is also about being really present in our relationship with God and not being distracted.  As difficult as that can be in our human relationships, it’s even more difficult with God; it’s so easy to be distracted, even when we try.  Your mind wanders, my mind wanders whether it’s in worship or in private devotional times.  Thoughts both serious and trivial get in the way.  We’re there, but we’re not…except maybe for moments; but perhaps it’s those moments we want to pay attention to.  They are eternal life moments, glimpses of eternal life.

Eternal life comes about when we’re not just going through the motions, whether it’s going through the motions of life or going through the motions of worship and prayer.  But, and it’s an important but…I would say eternal life moments can come out of going through the motions especially when it comes to worship and relating to God in worship.  Going through the motions, eternal life will sneak in and surprise you.

Mary Karr, an author and poet and one of the speakers at the conference Kathy and I attended a couple of weeks ago, said that people have the idea that faith is a feeling but for her it’s more a set of things you do, both in church and outside of church.  She is a late convert to Catholicism after a colorful past of abuse, drugs, alcohol and atheism, but for her, the ritual of worship is important, just being there and doing the same things week after week.  Is it deeply meaningful all the time?  No, but in doing it, the spirit moves and eternal life moments happen, sometimes.

In these last days of the Easter season, we lean into Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit.  We know that the Spirit moves inside the church through word and sacrament, the means of grace that provide glimpses of eternal life.  But it moves outside as well in the ways that we care for and are present to each other.  There too we experience and celebrate eternal life with the God who rides on the clouds but who is also present to us, the God revealed in Jesus who is deeply committed to us and deeply committed to the life of this world.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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